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Chicago Woman Who Led 1st May Day Parade In 1886 Honored With Street Sign

By Mina Bloom | May 1, 2017 5:15pm
 Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) led a street sign ceremony Monday morning honoring labor organizer Lucy Gonzalez Parsons.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) led a street sign ceremony Monday morning honoring labor organizer Lucy Gonzalez Parsons.
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DNAinfo/Mina Bloom

AVONDALE — Dozens of neighborhood residents and students convened early Monday morning for a ceremony honoring the woman who led the first May Day parade in Chicago — and the nation — in 1886: labor organizer and orator Lucy Gonzalez Parsons.

The group, which included sixth graders from Avondale-Logandale Elementary School, celebrated the life of Parsons (1853-1942), who lived at 3130 N. Troy St. in Avondale and was a force in the labor reform and women's rights movements. The working-class leader is thought to be the first black woman to fight for socialism across the globe, organizers said.

Parsons not only led the first May Day, but she also organized the only female workers union in Chicago at the time, Working Women’s Union No. 1 (WWU). She wrote for publications like the Socialist and Freedom, marched on picket lines and publicly demanded changes from politicians and police for decades before she died in 1942 when a fire engulfed her Avondale home.

The ceremony was held to unveil a street sign in her honor, "Lucy Gonzalez Parsons Way," along Kedzie Avenue from Emmett Street north to Addison Street.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), who first introduced the ordinance, was joined by Cook County Commissioner Luis Arroyo Jr., State Rep. Jaime Andrade Jr., and Leonard Pierce with the Democratic Socialists of America for the ceremony at the corner of Kedzie Avenue and George Street. An official with the Turkish trade union movement also spoke at the dedication.

"The conditions Lucy and other workers were facing that day are not too different from the conditions we're facing now," Ramirez-Rosa shouted into the megaphone.

"Today we honor Lucy Gonzalez Parsons because she taught us the way, she taught us that you don't take it sitting down, you don't live on your knees, you rise up and you fight back."

Parsons was born a slave in Texas and married a Confederate solider who was "forced to fight for the institution that caused her misery," according to Pierce, who summed up the marriage by saying, "Albert Parsons was no ordinary southerner and Lucy was no ordinary slave."

The "unimaginably brave" couple rebelled against slavery in Texas and were eventually driven out of the state, which is when they landed in Chicago. There, Parsons focused on organizing women while her husband became a union leader and radical organizer.

With their children in tow, they led 80,000 working people in the world's first May Day parade in 1886, demanding an eight-hour-workday. A few days later, the notorious protest known as the Haymarket Affair erupted. At least 11 people, including seven police, were killed after a bomb was thrown and officers started shooting at the crowd. The bombing was blamed on anarchists not affiliated with either side.

The first day of May has been associated with the labor movement since the Haymarket Affair. The holiday shares a date with International Workers' Day.

Parsons' husband, Albert, was executed after being tried for the Haymarket Affair. Despite her unending grief, Parsons went on to fight for the rights of workers and other marginalized people across the country and the globe for the next 55 years. 

"By dedicating this place to Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, we not only honor our best memories of her, but we remind ourselves that the struggle is far from over. In fact, it's more important now that it's ever been," Pierce said.

At the end of the ceremony, Ramirez-Rosa pulled the white sheet off the dedicated street sign with the help the sixth graders from Avondale-Logandale Elementary School.

While the students went back to school, many of the residents quickly joined a march down Kedzie Avenue opposing the proposed development at the former Pierre's Bakery. After the march, the group went Downtown to the citywide May Day rally.